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Yusra Mardini

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About Yusra

Olympic swimmer and Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini was appointed the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in April 2017, aged just nineteen. By sharing her inspiring story, Yusra has become a powerful voice for forcibly displaced people worldwide. 

In August 2015, Yusra fled the Syrian Civil War with her sister Sara. She made the treacherous journey to Europe at just seventeen years old, crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Mid-crossing, the engine of the boat carrying Yusra, her sister, and eighteen others stopped working. The sisters jumped into the water alongside two others and swam beside the boat for several hours, guiding the dinghy and saving the lives of everyone onboard. 


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Finding refuge in Germany, Yusra was then selected to compete as part of the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and then again in Tokyo four years later. Having previously written about her struggle with the title ‘refugee’, she became the proud flagbearer and spokesperson for the team at the 2020 games. From there, Yusra went on to address world leaders at the UN General Assembly, meet the Pope, and receive several prestigious awards. She has since become a prominent speaker and sports advocate, while also completing her studies at university in the USA.  

Yusra’s incredible story is told in her memoir, ‘Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph’ and in Netflix’s The Swimmers, which was released in 2022 to widespread admiration across the globe. Yusra also announced the launch of her very own nonprofit, The Yusra Mardini Foundation, on World Refugee Day 2023, which works to advance access to sports and education for refugee communities. 

In her role as a Goodwill Ambassador, Yusra has shared her experience of forced migration to shed light on the realities faced by people across the globe. She has spoken at high-profile events, including Google Zeitgeist, the World Economic Forum, COP and the Global Women’s Forum and given interviews to a range of publications, including the BBC, CNN, Harper’s Bazaar, The Times and Time Magazine (in collaboration with former UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie). 


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Recent advocacy

Yusra has been very active in her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. Most recently, in December 2023, she attended the Global Refugee Forum, an event which also saw her pledge the support of her foundation to the Sport for Refugees Coalition.  

In a series of major advocacy moments throughout 2023, Yusra gave a speech at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., spoke to renowned news outlets in the United Arab Emirates, and represented UNHCR at the Postcode Lottery Charity Gala in Dusseldorf, all to raise the profile and funds of the agency across the globe.   

At the BAFTAs in February 2023, alongside fellow Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett, Yusra wore a blue ribbon on the red carpet to show her support for displaced people on the world stage. In the same month, she recorded an appeal for social media, which greatly aided UNHCR’s fundraising campaign in the wake of the Türkiye-Syria earthquake that devastated the region at the beginning of the year. 


When I swim, I swim for every refugee. I swim to show people what we are capable of, and that we are all individuals with passions, skills and abilities. I swim to stand #WithRefugees.

Yusra Mardini



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Support for sport 

Yusra passionately believes in the power of sport to change lives. From her experience through swimming, she understands how sport can bring meaning, normalcy and identity to people’s lives after being displaced and how displacement should not be a barrier to competing at the very highest level. 

Yusra met Hadi and Mahdia, Iranian and Afghan refugee athletes, at the Italian Taekwondo Federation in Rome in June 2023. Both Olympic scholarship holders are on their way to becoming world-class athletes, and they spoke with Yusra about her journey to Rio 2016. Yusra’s ability to understand and inspire others is extraordinary and she is an incredible role model for young people and athletes worldwide.  


Yusra's work as a Goodwill Ambassador

Yusra Mardini speaks at the Global Refugee Forum 2023.
Global Refugee Forum
In December, Yusra attended the Global Refugee Forum and Nansen Award ceremony, pledging the support of her foundation to the Sport for Refugees Coalition.
Launch of the Yusra Mardini Foundation
In June, for World Refugee Day, Yusra announced the launch of the Yusra Mardini Foundation.
Speech at US Department of State
In June, Yusra spoke to the US Department of State at Capitol Hill to advocate for UNHCR.
Visit to Italy
In June, visiting both a taekwondo and a women’s centre in Rome, Yusra connected with people forced to flee and shared stories and experiences.
Postcode Lottery Charity Gala
In May, Yusra attended the Postcode Lottery Charity Gala in Germany on behalf of UNHCR to receive a donation and thank participants.
In February, Yusra wore a blue ribbon on the red carpet to show her support for displaced people alongside fellow Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett.
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yusra Mardini competes in the 100m freestyle race at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
The Swimmers movie
In September, The Swimmers was released on Netflix to international acclaim, changing the narrative around forced migration.
Refugee, Olympic swimmer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yusra Mardini during training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Tokyo Olympics
Yusra competed at the Olympics for the second time, swimming in the 100m Butterfly heats, and was the flagbearer for the Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yusra Mardini meets TIGER girls during a visit to a UNHCR-supported community centre in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. 
Visit to Jordan
In September, Yusra returned to the Middle East for the first time since fleeing Syria. She spent time with fellow Syrians living in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan and met a group of girls involved in an informal education and empowerment project at a UNHCR-supported community centre.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yusra Mardini meets Miriam, a 12 year old girl from Eritrea
Visit to Italy
In April, Yusra met refugees in Sicily who had undertaken similar desperate journeys to her own. She reflected on her trip in a takeover of the official UNHCR Instagram account and wrote the foreword for our Desperate Journeys report focused on children and young people.
Visit to Japan
In August, ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Yusra undertook a series of high-level advocacy meetings and media interviews in Japan. While there, she delivered an inspirational speech to hundreds of school children and took part in a Facebook live video with fellow Goodwill Ambassador MIYAVI.

News and highlights

Find the latest news and key highlights about Yusra's work as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.